South Hampton Roads, Virginia is a major population center located on the mid-Atlantic coast of the United States. It is bounded by the estuary waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Chesapeake Bay and James River which combine to form a deep, warm-water seaport. The region includes one of the largest port facilities in the country and is home to the largest military complex in the world. As a result, South Hampton Roads has experienced rapid and steady population growth which has strained local water supplies. Unfortunately, the same geological features which give rise to the massive port and military facilities, and in turn the population growth, also limit the availability of fresh water supplies in the region.
Because of the rapid population growth and the difficulty in developing new water sources locally, water shortages in the region have become commonplace over the last two decades. Water restrictions or water quality impairments resulting from water shortages have occurred in every dry period since 1976. South Hampton Roads does not have a regional water system; the individual cities operate their own respective water systems. Older cities like Portsmouth and Norfolk long ago developed the limited surface water supplies before the newer cities of Chesapeake, Suffolk, and Virginia Beach even existed. Portsmouth and Norfolk have sufficient water supplies to meet their own needs, including small, limited surpluses which they sell to Suffolk, Chesapeake, and Virginia Beach. However, the surpluses have not been sufficient to meet the water needs of these three cities where much of the population growth is occurring.
Virginia Beach, with twice the population of Chesapeake and Suffolk combined, has the largest existing and projected water demands, but the fewest options. At 33-38 MGD and growing, the City's existing water needs are six times greater than Suffolk's and three times greater than Chesapeake's. Virginia Beach obtains all of its water from Norfolk, pursuant to a surplus only water contract. Over the years, Norfolk has been unable to provide Virginia Beach adequate quantities during any dry period. The City has had to restrict or ration water in every dry period since 1976, and it has been under continuing water use restrictions and a moratorium on extensions of the water system since 1992.
After many years of evaluation, Virginia Beach decided to build a pipeline to an existing system of hydroelectric and flood control impoundments on the Roanoke River, which straddles the North Carolina and Virginia border. The project will transfer 60 MGD of water from Lake Gaston to existing reservoirs in southeast Virginia. Chesapeake is a partner in the project and will receive 10 MGD to augment its supply. Because of the extensive hydroelectric and flood control development in the Roanoke Basin, the drought capacity of the lower Roanoke River dwarfs all other river systems in either Virginia or North Carolina. The maximum withdrawal is about one percent of the average discharge from the impoundments and about three percent during a major drought. The project will use storage in an upstream impoundment so that low flows downstream will not be impacted during droughts.
Although 75% of all the water in the system originates in Virginia, it all flows downstream to North Carolina. Any water diverted by Virginia Beach, no matter how little, is water that will not ultimately flow downstream. As a result, North Carolina has vigorously opposed the project. Relying upon a strategy of "wining by slowly losing," North Carolina has opposed the project in each of the numerous environmental permit and approval proceedings which are required by multiple federal statutes. North Carolina has also filed several lawsuits in various federal courts challenging the validity of those permits and approvals, after they have been issued. Since 1983, the project has been the subject of six environmental reviews by three federal agencies, followed by five lawsuits in four federal courts challenging the validity of those environmental reviews. The City has prevailed in all eleven proceedings and none of the environmental reviews, administrative or judicial, have indicated that the project would have any significant impact.
The City has completed all of the engineering for the project, all of the property acquisition, all of the financing, and all other pre-construction activities. After receiving the last of the required federal approvals, Virginia Beach initiated construction of the project in late 1995. Including about 10% of the project that had been constructed earlier, the City completed all construction by December 1997. A dedication ceremony was held on November 7, 1997 and the project was put into formal service on January 1, 1998.